You just knew that some actress would see the scandalized televangelist and latter day gay icon Tammy Faye Bakker in 2001’s acclaimed documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” and lick her lips at the thought of playing her on the big screen.
And maybe you remembered that when it was announced Jessica Chastain would take her on and thought, “Yup. She’s got the lips for it.”
But friends, that understates how perfect she is for the part. This is what a “tour de force” performance looks like.
Chastain and an equally well-cast Andrew Garfield bring the upbeat, avaricious Evangelicals to thrilling life in this new “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a film that documents their fervor and ambition, their greedy rise to glory followed by an epic public fall.
Director Michael Showalter (“The Big Sick”) and screenwriter Abe Sylvia (he wrote several episodes of “Nurse Jackie”) struggle not just to wrestle this classic American saga into shape, but to make up their own minds about the anti-heroes at the heart of it.
The charismatic Bakkers are presented as bystanders in the corrupting spread of Evangelical Conservatism, led by the power-mad homophobe Jerry Falwell (Vincent D’Onofrio) and outed white supremacist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds). And Tammy Faye’s status as a gay icon was secured forevermore when she introduced her mostly-rural, wholly Fundamentalist TV audience to the idea that homosexuality should be tolerated, that AIDS couldn’t be the Old Testament “gay plague” political kingmakers like Falwell and Robertson preached that it was.
“We’re all just people, made out of the same old dirt,” the film has her bubbling to Falwell. And later, she more pointedly tells her wavering, Reagan-loving husband, “I’m NOT going to tell people who’s going to Hell, Jim.”
But the film and the filmmakers can’t quite pull off that warm embrace. “Eyes of Tammy Faye” keeps this publicly messy, kind of icky marriage of hustlers at an understandable arm’s length.
The film begins with fire and brimstone, giddily captures the Minnesota Bible college connection that Jim and Tammy Faye make and amusingly takes us on their traveling preachers with a puppet show to TV stars fast track to fame.
The great Cherry Jones plays Tammy Faye’s International Falls church pianist mother with a True Believer’s fury, a woman who embraces the idea of being shunned by her tiny Fundamentalist congregation as “a harlot” for divorcing and remarrying, and keeps little Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) away from services there because of that.
But the mouthy, headstrong child won’t be denied this experience. And when she sneaks in, she steals the spotlight — speaking in tongues, falling down and wetting herself as her mother barks at her to “Stop performing.”
She never did.
The Bible college meeting with Bakker comes when Tammy Faye’s a fellow student, listening to his practice sermon to a class and disapproving teacher, formulating from the pulpit Jim’s version of the “prosperity Gospel” that would make them rich and infamous.
“Here and now, in this very world, GOD does not want us to be be poor!”
The script races to get them off the road and onto Pat Robertson’s CBN TV network, where Tammy’s Christian life lessons puppets are the big draw and Jim invents the “talk show for Christians,” “The 700 Club.” “Eyes” skips through their move to Charlotte, N.C. and the formation of “The PTL (Praise the Lord) Club.” And the picture bogs down as the free spending, empire building and open misuse of charitable funds gets the Pulitzer Prize-winning attention of The Charlotte Observer.
If you remember anything about their fall, it’s in the sordid details trotted out here, which are foreshadowed, hinted at and delivered in a sometimes ironically amusing, sometimes unjustly unsatisfying way.
Through it all, Chastain and Garfield shimmer in their roles. Tammy Faye’s smiling, singing and relentlessly positive Minnesota spin on Fundamentalism perfectly complemented Bakker’s upbeat “GIVE for the Glory of God” fund-raising pitches. She is a free spender, but he’s the one whose big dreams put them forever under water. He’s the one who took short-cuts in building his TV network, vast land holdings and Christian Theme Park, Heritage USA.
Garfield strikes just the right note with Bakker, smiling and somewhat sissy-voiced and catnip to his fans, who never got over the news that Liberace was gay. But Chastain is perfect. Forget the prosthetics and the “clown makeup” mimicry. She gets under the character’s skin, sings in her own voice and never lets an insincere moment flicker by on the screen. This is one of those performances of the “La Vie En Rose/Judy” caliber, a larger-than-life turn that more than compensates for a movie that doesn’t quite measure up.
D’Onofrio captures Falwell’s humorless arrogance and the homophobia just with his imposing size. We glimpse the power-coveting that drove him to back Reagan and turn Evangelicals forever away from the Godly Baptist lay preacher then in the White House — Jimmy Carter. But an actor this good should have nailed the self-righteous Falwell smirk, the man’s trademark.
And none of the actors playing other Evangelicals — Robertson, Swaggart et al — resemble their characters or register at all.
So this “Eyes of Tammy Faye” doesn’t replace the original documentary even as it finishes the job of turning its heroine into a “misunderstood” gay icon and martyr. Rather, what Chastain, Garfield, Showalter and Sylvia have managed is a movie that traces America’s precipitous fall for even bigger con artists with fascist impulses to its source, the “entertainers” who talk people out of money and convince them they’re hearing supernatural voices when all they really want is riches and power.
Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and drug abuse
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Andrew Garfield, Cherry Jones, Vincent D’Onofrio, Gabriel Olds, Chandler Head and Sam Jaeger.
Credits: Directed by Michael Showalter, script by Abe Sylvia, based on the documentary by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey. A Searchlight release.
Running time: 2:06